Raising children on my own has its downsides, to put it mildly, but along the way there have been some unexpectedly sweet surprises. One is that I worry less.
That’s not to say I don’t worry at all; just that I worry less, and about different things. Single mother worries, as opposed to normal parent worries.
I know about those normal worries because once, in a parallel universe, I used to have them too. Things like how much time my kids spend on their devices, and how young is too young for a mobile phone? Am I bad for dodging tuckshop duty? Will they fail in life if they don’t do karate, lute, Mandarin, homework and household chores?
But since I became the sole provider and carer for my two children, a wonderful thing has happened. I let myself off the hook.
I stopped caring about a whole lot of things I discovered really didn’t matter, including:
1. Public versus private education. My kids attend a local public high school, just like I did. They enjoy it, and they’re doing fine, as far as I can tell (I missed parent-teacher night because I was working. On the scale of single parent difficult choices, that was one of the easier ones).
2. What they do to their hair. Hair grows back. Piercings come out. Even the ugliest tattoo can be lasered off down the track. I’d rather worry about the things that can’t be reversed.
3. NAPLAN and test results. As long as they they’ve got friends and respect their teachers, I’m not bothered about their marks. It’s a dangerous world for teenagers these days; I just want to get them to the other side in one piece.
4. What other people think. If I cared every time I was judged, criticised or shunned for being a single mother, I’d be barking mad. So I don’t. It’s very liberating.
I’ve had mothers refuse to let their child come to our place because they’re not comfortable with the occasional lack of supervision. Fair enough. But my kids have been flying solo since they were little. They catch buses. They cook for themselves. They’re responsible. (And yes, it’s legal to leave them alone, once the older child is 12. Did it happen earlier? I couldn’t possibly comment, Your Honour).
5. Bribing them. Hard cash is the only way I get my son to clean his room. God knows I don’t want to go in there – he’s an adolescent boy with hoarding tendencies.
6. Screen time. I’m not there after school, so you can imagine. I don’t want to tell you how many hours my kids spend watching YouTube, because you’d have to arrest me.
7. Whether a part-time job will affect their schoolwork. My kids will be getting a job the second they turn 14. I worked at Maccas all through high school and loved it. It gave me financial independence, confidence and friendships.
8. Not carting them off to a million after-school activities. Logistically it’s impossible, because I’m at work. Personally, I’m baffled by the modern compulsion to schedule every spare minute of kids’ lives – all that rushing, driving and expense. And after all that, how many people still play the tuba when they’re adults?
9. Mobile phones. My kids have had phones since they were eight years old, because they need them. Once they rang me at work to say they’d locked themselves in the linen cupboard and couldn’t get out, and where was the baby-sitter? (She was running late because her car had caught fire, as it turned out). Phones are handy at these times.
10. Volunteering at school. I don’t do it. Never have. I’ve seen too many working mothers at breaking point because they’ve agreed to organise the school fete on top of everything else they do. Thank you ladies, but I’ll leave you to it. Feel free to hate me (see #4).
Obviously, I still worry. Full-time single parenting – as opposed to co-parenting where the responsibility is shared – keeps me well-supplied with sleepless nights. Mostly, I fret about logistics and to-do lists, like most working mothers.
But occasionally, it’s the darker stuff that surfaces at 3am. I worry I might die in a car crash coming home from work, with the kids waiting at home, wondering where I am.
I worry about life lobbing something truly awful at us out of the blue. A dear friend – also a single mother – was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer a year ago. She’s my role model and mentor in not sweating the small stuff.
And while I no longer worry about my ability to manage, there is still the crushing aloneness of full-time single parenting, the magnitude and precariousness of it. The feeling of being just one big life event – illness, job loss – away from crisis.
One thing you learn doing it alone is that you have a finite amount of emotional energy, and it’s pointless to burn it up on things you can’t change. To me, all that matters now is giving my kids a peaceful, happy home. The rest will unfold as it will.
If we get to the end of another day, and we’re all still here, and alive, and together – that’s enough. Anything else is just not worth the worry.
Juanita Phillips is an ABC TV news presenter and an author. She’s not sentimental about Mother’s Day – but is still hoping for a present (not bath salts, rather a good set of screw-drivers).